In a recent column in the Observer newspaper, humorist David Mitchell took aim at the Heads of English Public Schools who, apparently, are fed up with not being recognised for the good work their schools do (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/03/private-school-teachers-david-mitchell). (For those not familiar with the oddities of British labelling, in the UK the term ‘Public School’ is reserved for private institutions catering to those who can afford them; the remainder attend ‘state’ schools). Like Mitchell, I attended an independent school (only a mile or two from his, as it happens), where I benefitted from an excellent education; I concur with his suggestion that ‘if there was no independent sector, our state school system would serve us better’, and with his characterisation of the privileged tax status accorded to UK independent schools as ‘the establishment taking care of its own’.
Mitchell’s purpose is to entertain, but his sarcasm makes a serious point: independent schools are, by and large, far more comfortable places to teach than state schools, and those who work in them must live with the fact that the moral high ground is reserved, rightly, for those who struggle daily to educate the most needy in society in the most difficult circumstances.
Mitchell mentions Anthony Seldon, the Head of Wellington College, who has complained of jealousy and hostility towards Public Schools. Writing in the Guardian newspaper last year, Seldon also stated that ‘British public life would be unthinkable without the contributions made by [Public Schools]’. He was quite right, but I question the assumption that British public life, as shaped by the Public Schools, is an asset to the nation. After all, as he points out: ‘…many senior politicians, newspaper editors and proprietors attended them’; the list should also include bankers and financiers, and comprehensively covers those segments of society which are widely held to have failed!
Mitchell rant singled out for particular attention the ex-Heads of Roedean and Cheltenham Ladies College, who are ‘flouncing off to the moral sinkholes of the world’ (such as Switzerland and Saudi Arabia) to take charge of international schools, and it is here that he goes wrong. His lack of awareness of the international education scene leads him to assume that all international schools are similar in nature, the sort of ‘cushy school for the rich’ to which he would expect the Heads of Cheltenham Ladies College and Roedean to migrate.
Such schools certainly exist, and in ever-growing numbers. The ‘for-profit’ sector in international education is a booming business, particularly in the field of franchising the names of famous Public Schools to cater to wealthy elites (either expat. or local) in the Middle East and Asia. However, many international schools operate on a not-for-profit basis, and in many cases costs are borne by the institutions or companies whose employees insist on the availability of an English-medium school before they will take a post abroad. This results in such schools having more in common with a good suburban state school, rather than an elite private school. They take very seriously the idea of diversity, whether of nationality, language, ability or economic status, and they benefit from one huge advantage: they need not be constrained by political oversight or national curriculum.
The best international schools (and all of my international teacher friends reading this teach in the best international schools!) really do provide a setting in which education and children can thrive. Of course, expat. parents can be as demanding as any in the world, but the international educators I know find huge satisfaction in simply being treated as professionals and being able concentrate on helping students learn. The diversity of students, staff and parents also gives them a distinct edge when dealing with global issues; tolerance and international understanding become a part of daily life rather than an theoretical ideal.
There is no doubt that Switzerland has more than a few moral issues to deal with, particularly in the financial sector, but it also plays host to more than a few international organisations whose moral credentials are impeccable. International schools in Switzerland cover just as wide a spectrum, from elitist to idealist, and Mitchell’s generalisation is inaccurate and unfair (though, admittedly, complicating his argument with nuance and shades of grey would probably spoil the humour.) Nevertheless, there really are schools that actively strive to make the world a better place, and those who teach in them consider themselves fortunate indeed.